July 29, 2008

Struggling Orange County Students Will Get More Help

By Ginny Hoyle, The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C.

Jul. 29--HILLSBOROUGH -- Orange County Schools could soon provide scattered "community learning centers" across the district to offer students additional academic help after regular school hours.

Orange County Board of Education members expressed excitement during a special meeting Monday afternoon over two new initiatives presented by Superintendent Patrick Rhodes as part of the schools' and community's ongoing efforts to close the district's achievement gap.

Three local churches already have offered space for community learning centers -- similar to the program in nearby Durham Public Schools and other districts across the nation -- and Time Warner Cable has stated it would provide Internet services free of charge. The centers would include programs focused on homework assistance, computer skills, tutoring and some recreational activities for kindergarten through high school students.

A total of $25,000 of the district's remedial funding and other budget monies would go toward the program, a partnership between Orange County Schools, the Raising Achievement and Closing the Gap committee and several faith communities in the county.

The second close-the-gap initiative, for which $25,000 is also budgeted, aims to provide an alternative to in- and out-of-school suspensions by creating an off-site location at which students could complete assignments and receive counseling.

The center would not be a part of Partnership Academy Alternative School, but would offer students who are suspended for a short amount of time an opportunity to stay on track.

"Right now it's pretty much limited to out-of-school suspension or in-school suspension," Rhodes said. "We'd like to see a middle of the road."

Rather than being left at home unattended, Rhodes said, the student could be assigned to a certain location, transported by the district, and offered supervision and academic support "to keep them from hanging out, or perhaps in some situations, getting into more trouble."

"I think these are excellent initiatives and I'm glad that we're budgeting money for it," said school board member Ted Triebel.

Triebel's board colleague Debbie Piscitelli agreed.

"I think both ideas are great," said Piscitelli. "It's going to be coming down to the details to see how well it's executed."

School board chairman Steve Halkiotis wondered aloud if there also would be opportunities for the community learning centers to team up with other programs, since "everything ultimately comes under the microscope as child-oriented and child-centered."

Halkiotis also suggested creating incentives for district teachers to get involved in the programs before commending the previous board for "having the vision to set aside $50,000."

"You have my wholehearted endorsement, so bring us forth something good that we can eat," Halkiotis said to the superintendent.

The Raising Achievement and Closing the Gap committee, a community-based advisory group, has continued to update the board with recommendations to close the achievement gap between the district's white students and minority students, such as increasing the number of minority students taking advanced level classes and recruiting and retaining more educators of color.


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